On Friday, a Pakistani man attacked the former offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, injuring two journalists from an unrelated TV channel with a meat cleaver. The attacker claimed that he wanted to punish the satirical French magazine—which has now moved to an undisclosed location—for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In a video that the perpetrator released on social media prior to the terror attack, he pledged allegiance to Islamic preacher Ilyas Qadri, who also influenced Mumtaz Qadri—a Pakistani police officer, who in 2011 shot and killed former Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for “blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad.”Charlie Hebdo republished the caricatures earlier this month, in solidarity with the victims of the 2015 attack, at a time designed to coincide with the beginning of the trial of alleged accessories to the terrorist raid that killed twelve, including eight journalists affiliated with the publication. The French journal’s decision predictably prompted demonstrations in Pakistan, anger from the leaders of Turkey and Iran, victim-blaming op-eds across the Muslim world and death threats from leaders of Islamist terror groups and political parties. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan echoed the overwhelming majority of global Muslim leaders and scholars by denouncing Charlie Hebdo as “Islamophobic” and urging the UN to commemorate an “international day to combat Islamophobia.”
On the same day that the Pakistani prime minister condemned Charlie Hebdo, a Pakistani man launched a terror attack on the publication in the name of Islam. This is a stark example of the Muslim world’s self-defeating rhetoric about Islamophobia and demonstrates the gulf between the Muslim leaders’ demands and the realities of many of the states and communities they represent. In Pakistan, even members of supposedly secular parties, some of whom have even lost family members to jihadist attacks, have announced bounties for killing Charlie Hebdo journalists, and politicians have lost their lives for merely criticising the country’s blasphemy laws. The latest Paris attacker has also been hailed as a hero by his father back home in Pakistan. Elsewhere, the hypocrisy of the Muslim world is highlighted by the leaders who denounce Islamophobia while oppressing their own religious minorities and the almost complete collective Muslim silence on Uyghur internment camps in China. But what is most striking is the contrast between their positions on Islamophobia and on blasphemy against Islam.
Over the years, Charlie Hebdo has satirised many ideologies and religions—some considerably more frequently than Islam, and has supported liberal Muslims. Yet the magazine has become a battleground for the many people who want to champion Islamism, while battling Islamophobia. The term Islamophobia itself—”irrational fear of Islam”—conflates Islam and Muslims. It is often used to describe Charlie Hebdo but, tellingly, rarely to critique the Communist Party of China. So how do allegations of an irrational fear of Islam and blasphemy laws mandating death for criticising Islam manage to coexist in the Muslim world?
There are currently twelve Muslim states (see below) in which atheism, apostasy and/or blasphemy against Islam are capital offences. In twenty other states, including Turkey and Egypt, these offences carry mandatory prison sentences. Six of the seven most populous Muslim-majority states inflict harsh penalties for criticising Islam; the seventh—Bangladesh—has witnessed a spike in violence against dissidents that has prompted the exodus of many atheists and secularists. The two undisputed leaders of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam—Saudi Arabia and Iran—have the largest numbers of annual state executions, the vast majority of which are for “crimes against Islam,” including blasphemy. Perhaps that is why it is hard to find a leader of a Muslim state willing to state that no one deserves to be killed for insulting Islam.
That the vast majority of Muslim representatives believe that Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures are more detrimental to Islam than the idea that cartoonists merit death for blasphemy is hardly surprising. Days after the 2015 terror attack, the Muslim world was simmering with violent protests against and state level condemnations of the drawings—not of the murder of twelve human beings. Today, Muslim leaders condemn cartoons at the United Nations, and have established TV channels dedicated to discussing those cartoons, while calling for a global policy on the protection of Islam that, if applied to other religions would mean that there would be a vast number of blasphemy cases against Muslims themselves. The universal application of such blasphemy laws might unleash carnage to rival that of the Dark Ages.
Far from embracing the freedom to offend as an inalienable feature of free speech, the Muslim world is light years away from even accepting that no expression of opinion—no matter how provocative, insulting or repulsive—merits a violent response. We should urge the Muslim world to abandon its savage medieval blasphemy laws. Instead, we strengthen them by abandoning dissenting Muslims, while global human rights courts uphold these blasphemy laws by encouraging us to treat Islam as above criticism. As a result, far too many Muslim leaders wholeheartedly endorse Islamic exceptionalism, while, in their own countries, violence is committed in the name of Islam almost with impunity.
Islamic blasphemy laws should have been abolished long before the idea of an irrational fear of Islam even became a topic of discussion. When Sudan recently abandoned its Islamic constitution and removed the laws against blasphemy and apostasy—a move that could do more to improve the reputation of Islam than anything undertaken by any other twenty-first century Muslim state—elicited no appreciation from those claiming to fight Islamophobia.
Only one organised religion still punishes blasphemy with death codified in law. The belief that people should be killed for sacrilege or heresy is commonly found among adherents of that religion. Most of the leaders who claim to speak on behalf of that religion either endorse or acquiesce in the violence committed in response to satire or criticism of that religion. We must first accept and then change this if we want to change people’s bloodthirsty image of Islam. Describing the fear of this very real violence as a phobia will only substantiate and justify that fear.